The Japanese silk is woven through with a golden thread and dyed with a light scent of fruit. It is 1905 in New York City, and a seamstress makes makes corsets to fit smoothly against the skin. But closeness and sensuality are complicated, and what is life-giving when it is real can be dangerous when it is false, in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer prizewinning Intimate Apparel, running through Aug. 13 at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.
Esther has come north to find work, as thousands of people did in the years of the Great Migration. She has learned skilled work that brings her into close touch with a wide range of people. And Nehassiau deGannes, reveling in the role, is struck with Esther’s aloneness.
Esther came to the city by herself at 17, deGannes said, and she has adapted and taken care of herself. At 35 she has clients ranging from the Tenderloin to black Bohemia to 5th Avenue, a growing reputation and rare, hard-won independence.
And she lives at Mrs. Dickson’s boarding house while other young women come and go. Mrs. Dickson is the closest she has to family, deGannes said, and they have a formality between them.
“Esther has a desire for a deep, meaningful human connection,” she said.
Intimate clothing leads her into intimate conversation with many people. Mrs. Dickson is an educated woman running a business she has inherited from her much older husband. Mayme is a classically trained musician who supports herself now by playing piano in a saloon and, as director Daniela Varon says, entertaining upstairs.
And Christianna Nelson is Mrs. Van Buren, a Southerner herself and the wife of a wealthy New Yorker, who now feels trapped and out of place.
“My one marketable skill I used to marry well,” Nelson said, “and now that the marriage is unhappy I have nothing to fall back on.”
In her status and vulnerability, Mrs. Van Buren reminds Nelson of Edith Wharton, and that connection is deliberate. Nottage visited The Mount while she was writing the play, Varon and Nelson said, and she drew inspiration from Wharton as she considered class and culture, and the ways intimacy may cross them, or not.
Esther’s work brings her into contact with Mrs. Van Buren when Mrs. Van Buren is bare to the world. It gives Mrs. Van Buren an experience of sensuality she has never had, Nelson said.
And clothing introduces Esther to Mr. Marks, a merchant who can find her hand-died silk so rare that the maker has signed it with his name.
“Esther’s closest understanding of sensual and erotic love is fabric,” deGannes said. But Mr. Marks is an Orthodox Jew working to support his family in Europe, and he is engaged to a woman overseas.
So Esther dreams. She dreams of real intimacy, deGannes said. She dreams of a man she can trust, a man with skill and imagination — someone like Mr. Marks, but someone she can touch. And she dreams of an established business of her own.
She has saved over the years. But a woman in 1905 cannot own property. Esther cannot buy or lease the space for a business.
Her dream has challenges, but it has precedent, deGannes said, and Nottage knew it. In 1905, Madam C.J. Walker was launching the business that would make her the first African American woman millionaire and a highly successful entrepreneur with her own manufacturing company, and she made her name in the same field, with beauty products. She was about Esther’s age when she began. But she too needed a man to sign for her.
So Esther sews corsets and reaches for contact with the people around her. And then the letter comes. Unexpectedly a man named George, working on the Panama Canal, begins to write to her.
Lee Edward Colston II offers, thoughtfully and straightforwardly, George’s accounts of hard and dangerous work in a bright, lush place where illness can kill without warning, machines chew through the landscape and “chaos is a jackhammer away.”
“Today,” he writes, “we severed the roots of a giant flamboyant and watched it tumble to the ground. I stood thigh-deep in crimson blossoms, swathed in the sweet aroma of death, and wondered how a place so beautiful could become a morgue.”
Nottage understands the systems and forces at work and the power dynamics of being a Caribbean laborer on the Panama Canal, deGannes said. Lee has done a great deal of research and talked with the cast about conditions there. Black and white workers had two different pay scales for the same work, different levels of housing and different food rations. George watches men around him hiding pain in women and rum and leaving the job with less than they came with.
George’s letters touch Esther, and she enlists Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme to help her write back to him.
But what will happen when George comes to New York and meets her face to face? What will happen when he walks into a bar and orders ale in a Bajan accent and sees how he is treated — when he stands in line for construction jobs and sees them given to men much older and less experienced than he is?
“He wants to make things and to build things,” Varon said.
Like Esther and Mrs. Ban Buren, he joins a cast of people who feel they are outsiders, she said, people in their 30s who feel they have a last chance at something. And Esther will have to decide what chances she is willing to take, and what it might mean, really mean, to find an intimacy closer than silk and whalebone or Irish wool.
What: ‘Intimate Apparel’ by Lynn Nottage
Where: Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: July 20 to Aug. 13
Tickets: $34 to $69
Information: 413-637-3353, shakespeare.org